Lynn Hershman Leeson is an artist and filmmaker whose photography, video, film, performance art, installations, and interactive work investigate political and societal issues. Her works all begin and end with a drawing with a number of them revolving around invented female personae.
Leeson graduated from Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University in 1963 and received her M.F.A. from San Francisco State University in 1972. Leeson is Professor Emerita at the University of California, Davis and an A.D. White Professor at Large at Cornell University. She lives and works in San Francisco and New York City.
In 1965, Leeson suffered a near-fatal complication of cardiomyopathy during the fifth month of her pregnancy. She went into heart failure and spent months in the hospital in an oxygen tent. The threat of death made her aware of time and the fact that time can’t be wasted. Since so much of her illness depended on her ability to breathe, she was inspired to record her own breath. She made audios of herself breathing and put the audios into wax sculptures, cast from her own face.
In the 1970s when her wax sculptures were exhibited at UCLA at Berkeley, they were denounced for “not being art,” and the museum closed the exhibit down. This rejection by the museum system and its suppression of her literal and figurative voice motivated Leeson to continue to make art and to create a voice for herself. “The cultural experience of having your voice suppressed has made speech and talking and having a voice really important in what I do . . . A lot of what I do as being an artist is creating a voice for myself because I didn’t have one for so long.” Afterwards, Leeson not only kept the breathing in her sculptures but added dialogue and questions to interact with viewers.
In 1972, Leeson used masquerade in her “Self-Portrait as Another Person.” In 1973, she created an installation in a rented hotel room which she furnished with objects that evoked traces left by previous occupants. Visitors would be able to recreate fragments of fictional lives.
Leeson is also famous for being someone else. In 1972, she invented and created her alter ego or avatar: Roberta Breitmore. It could be said that Leeson invented virtual reality some forty years before computers. Leeson donned a blonde wig, applied a carefully designed face with makeup, and set her alter ego loose in the world. She gave Roberta Breitmore her own life, her own credit cards, and even a psychiatrist as she documented the life of her imagined character. For more than three years from 1975 to 1978 Leeson provided photographs, diary entries, psychiatrist’s records, resumes, an apartment lease, a Weight Watchers membership, etc. to track the life of this created persona. Leeson was concerned with the ways in which identity could be built by false markers. The fictional Roberta was allowed to qualify for credit cards while Leeson herself was not. Leeson’s altered photograph, “Roberta’s Continuing Constructions, Suggested Alterations” was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2018.
Leeson has always been ahead of others in terms of media by adopting and mastering technology for her own ends. This has led to her work with artificial intelligence. Leeson has been working with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis for years to encode her work in her own DNA and develop a custom antibody. In the exhibition “Manual Override,” she presents the final film in her cycle “First Person Plural: The Complete Electronic Diaries” (1984-2019). This documents her foray into genetic engineering, alongside works by younger artists who are partnering with scientists after Leeson’s model.
Her work has been featured in over 200 large-scale exhibitions including a survey in 2012 at the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany. Her work is in the collections of major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.